Friday, December 4, 2009

Credit to Kelis: she can make conforming seem nonconformist. With the rising profile of club producer David Guetta-- and the popular success of his unavoidable and increasingly grating "I Gotta Feeling" with Black Eyed Peas-- Kelis jumped on board, yet has managed to record a track that sounds both timely and reasonably novel. "Acapella" is a smooth, Donna Summer-style track with Kelis as an icy electro queen, a robotic embrace of house's metronomic bliss. Kelis' chameleonic adaptation to the times exemplifies her artistic flexibility, that she knows how to adjust to a changing pop world without losing her ability to stand out, to make her competition seem banal. Nu-electro house dominates the pop airwaves in ways dance music hasn't seen since the days of Jock Jams; in response, "Acapella" displays Kelis' seemingly preternatural understanding of pop history, the dynamics at play in today's pop music, and ironically, a sense of personality in frozen performance.

[from untitled album; out 2010 on Interscope]

— David Drake, December 4, 2009
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Mr. Ek, nice job putting up this wall. Construction is a sturdy enough metaphor for "Walls", the lead mp3 from Shout Out Louds' second Merge album (third overall), appropriately titled Work. When we last heard this Swedish five-piece, on 2007's Our Ill Wills, Peter Bjorn and John's Björn Yttling was producing; he gave the band's melodic, emotive rockers that innocent "Young Folks" splendor. As great as singles "Tonight I Have to Leave It" and "Impossible" were, the risk for Shout Out Louds is to get too heart-tugging-- you may have noticed "Very Loud", from their 2003 debut, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, in the trailer for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist last year-- so it's good to have producer Phil Ek (the Shins, Modest Mouse, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes) as foreman this time around. "Walls" pounds out a rigid foundation, then lets chunky guitars and hummable piano rise above like spires. Horns are there for hue, not for hooks; those are provided courtesy of throwaway phrases like "ahhh ahhh" and "run, run, run", so you'd almost never notice the fraught lyrical content. "I took too many pills and wrote my will just to get to ya," Adam Olenius sings, sounding tense but restrained. From Sweden's emo Strokes to Sweden's emo Spoon: Look what Shout Out Louds have wrought.

MP3:> Shout Out Louds: "Walls"

[from Work; out 02/23/10 on Merge]

— Marc Hogan, December 4, 2009
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Ted Leo is punk rock's straight-A student. His politics are awesome, his business ethic solid, and his live show killer. Back in the late 1990s, when his peers were starting to wind down, Leo was willing himself into a solo career with a touring schedule that would have laid waste to men 10 years his junior. And it worked, too. He reps for Crass, eats vegan, and still manages to hit everybody back on Twitter. In fact, Ted Leo's so thoroughly right-on in so many aspects of his career that it's easy to take it for granted that he also makes records.

So, let "Even Heroes Have to Die" serve as a reminder that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are still cranking out good tunes. The song, from the band's Matador debut, The Brutalist Bricks, finds Leo getting back to the strummier side of his shtick-- letting fly with barrage of acoustic guitar-driven power pop. "Even heroes have to die, no one lives forever, no one's wise to try," sings Leo. Twenty-odd years of experience pay off here-- not only in confidence and chops, but in perspective. Not a lot of bands stick around long enough to write about getting older with anything resembling authority. The echoplex delay-- which got a serious workout on his last album, Living With the Living-- is conspicuously absent, but everything else is perfectly in place.

MP3:> Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: "Even Heroes Have to Die"

[from The Brutalist Bricks; out 03/09/10 on Matador]

— Aaron Leitko, December 4, 2009
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's easy to listen to RJD2 in his indie-pop phase and wonder what would've happened if he'd stuck to hip-hop production: would he have beats on the latest Ghostface or Mos Def albums? Would he still be on Definitive Jux, splitting duties with Blockhead on the next Aesop Rock album? Would he still be making adventurous breakbeat mixtapes like Your Face or Your Kneecaps? The reason it's easy to speculate about what-if stuff like that is because it's a convenient distraction; it's not like there's much in the music he's been making since The Third Hand to keep Deadringer enthusiasts too happy about the career arc he's actually had. And it's not even that RJD2 making vaguely new wavish singer-songwriter pop on some man-who-would-be-Lidell business is necessarily the problem-- it's that he still hasn't figured out how to keep it from sounding flimsy.

He does seem to have at least taken a step in the right direction in realizing that his voice isn't enough to carry a song, though not far enough to realize that, even if it's someone else's voice, it needs to be given more to do. Kenna's alt-soul croon doesn't push RJ's twee funk precedent to anyplace too challenging, and though he wraps his voice around a mildly stirring chorus, it sounds like it's too politely strapped down to bring the usual bombastic life he's capable of giving a song. As for RJ's backing track, it's a simultaneously overproduced and low-energy shot at Stevie-via-Squeeze with too many keyboards deployed for "texture" (read: busywork) and a mushy drumbeat drowning in a bucket full of tinkly precious little chimes. I wonder when the last time he listened to "The Horror" was.

MP3:> RJD2: "Games You Can Win"

[from The Colossus; out 01/19/10 on RJ's Electrical Connections]

— Nate Patrin, December 3, 2009
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James Blake has released only one single ("Air & Lack Thereof" / "Sparing the Horses"), a few stray tracks on podcasts, and this remix, but his sound is already instantly recognizable. His synth lines squeal and convulse, his beats-- dubstep in DNA-- lurch like they're coming through quicksand, and his tension-and-release chord progressions are lifted from gospel and soul. There's a violence in Blake's productions, almost like the music-- the massive, detuned synths; the mottled gospel samples-- is trying to break out of the body that holds it.

Blake is associated with the emerging post-dubstep world of Mount Kimbie (who he sometimes plays keyboards in) and labels like Hemlock (whose output so far has been uniformly worthwhile). This one's a remix in name only-- if you A/B it with the original (also terrific, but not as immediate), the only carryover is a bassline and some vaguely biological sound effects (Untold is deft with vaguely biological sound effects).

"An intern on the other side of the office just popped in to say that she wasn't sure if she loved or hated it," said one of my editors. "But she was intrigued; me too." Personally, I'd rather be annoyed than bored. When I hear Blake's productions, I hear something futuristic and alternative-- I hear something new.

[from the "Stop What You're Doing"/"I Can't Stop This Feeling" remix 10"; out now on Hemlock]

— Mike Powell, December 3, 2009
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One look at the layout of Google Wave indicates how comfortable we've become with overstimulation. Having multiple information streams simultaneously competing for our attention and being able to shift mental gears quickly enough to process them is now standard for pretty much all forms of communication, and "Daisy", a track from Brooklynites Fang Island, is doing its part to keep our minds agile.

Like many frenetic songs, "Daisy" becomes more rewarding with time; the first few plays sound cluttered and overly ambitious, but repeat listens reveal that it follows an internal logic that binds its seemingly disparate themes. Guitarist Jason Bartell claims the goal of Fang Island is to "make music for people who like music"; with this intent, it makes sense that "Daisy" comes across as an approach to power pop that's equal parts serious craftsman and Dr. Frankenstein, interested in carving a meaningful song out of disparate parts. Amidst a flurry of time signature changes, we're treated to a brainy vision of pop-punk: Steamrolling power chords overlaid with a dynamic guitar solo at least partially indebted to Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott. Although this nonstop ebullience is an abrupt contrast to the close harmonies that close the song, Fang Island uses a downright proggy arpeggiated organ to facilitate an easier transition. Ultimately, "Daisy" is a bit fragmented but thoroughly charming and engaging. If this is the arena rock of the future, send me an invite, okay?

[from Fang Island; out 02/23/10 on Sargent House]

— Susannah Young, December 3, 2009
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Soft Pack are from San Diego, but after listening to this tune, it'd be easy to think they originally met each other at a Q and Not U/ Ted Leo show at Fort Reno. (That the group actually played Fort Reno this past summer is surely just a happy coincidence.) On "Answer To Yourself", they don't really do much to hide their post-harDCore proclivities. Their sharp turns, their rhythmic briskness, their well-meaning didacticism (suggesting when and how often you should answer is a, um, nice touch), even Matt Lamkin's MacKaye-esque stoic growl-- all point toward a musical diet that featured a whole lot of records with Ted Nicely's name in the insert. It helps (or doesn't help) that these tendencies are ably accentuated (or exacerbated) by producer Eli Janney, who's definitely no stranger to what went down during Dischord's heyday. So while the moves the Soft Pack have chosen to bust on this track are well-studied and well-worn, they're not proffered without some skill, as well as some wrinkles-- when Lamkin takes a break from handing out advice, he's replaced by a frenetic and scratchy guitar solo/ freakout that plays perfectly off his po-faced lien, and adds some welcome flair and fire to the tune's spartan efficiency. And though it's perfectly understandable to malign the group for reinventing a wheel that's been around the block plenty of times, those that show the Soft Pack a little tenderness will find their kindness generously rewarded.

Stream:> The Soft Pack: "Answer to Yourself"

[from The Soft Pack; out 02/02/10 on Kemado]

— David Raposa, December 2, 2009
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With its disco-derived beat and her decadently groggy vocals, actress Leighton Meester's debut single for Universal Republic (where she signed back in April) is limo-friendly club-hopping music that wouldn't sound out of place on "Gossip Girl", scoring a scene that shows how "complex" and "lonely" her character Blair Waldorf is. On the whole, she has more musical personality than most starlets, and with "Somebody to Love" she has a million... no, a hundred-dollar hook that suits her sleepy/sexy delivery to a tee.

Meester's vocal range, though, is very narrow, and on the bridge she mangles simple French pronunciation so egregiously that she might as well be reading off phonetic cue cards in the studio. Sounding like a tourist is never sexy. Sounding like Robin Thicke is even less so. The aggressively anonymous crooner delivers a breathless, sub-JT verse that manages to rhyme "Baby girl, where you at" with "lookin' at me like a puddy cat"-- a phrase that wouldn't even get a hardcore Tweety fan in bed. Still, as crossover attempts go, "Somebody to Love" is better than a sex tape or a Cobra Starship collab.

[from the "Somebody to Love" single; out now on Universal Republic]

— Stephen M. Deusner, December 2, 2009
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Neon Indian made two remixes of Grizzly Bear's song "Cheerleader", and though both versions give the tune a full-on "glo-fi" makeover, only the "Studio 6669" mix is successful in recasting Ed Droste and company as a synthpop outfit. Though the "Sega Genesis P-Orridge" mix boasts some very pleasurable textures and instrumental hooks, Grizzly Bear's melodies seem to float haphazardly through it, untethered to the structure as if the a cappella track were simply dropped into a pre-existing Neon Indian demo. The "Studio 6669" version, however, is an ideal merger of the two bands' disparate aesthetics, and seamless enough that it wouldn't be difficult to convince someone that the song was written with this arrangement in mind all along. The structure and appeal of "Cheerleader" is entirely intact in the remix, but the mood is much warmer, thawing out the original's chilly tone somewhat without abandoning its standoffish, passive-aggressive essence. As it turns out, hazy synthesizer washes and snapping drum machine patterns flatter Grizzly Bear's brand of understated melancholy harmony, and the middle ground between Veckatimest and Psychic Chasms sounds rather like a slightly sunnier version of the Junior Boys.

[self-released]

— Matthew Perpetua, December 2, 2009
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

2010 could turn out to be the year the indie kids stopped worrying and learned to love 1970s classic rock. As a devoted hand-wringer, I'm of more than a few minds about this potential development. It's not as if bands from the Hold Steady to Belle and Sebastian haven't already spread the gospel of Thin Lizzy. And yeah, My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses have almost definitely spent time bro-ing down in the wide open country-fried spaces of classic Neil Young LPs. Do I have to tell anybody at this point about Animal Collective's jones for Grateful Dead? But with Free Energy's barbecue-friendly power-pop choogling and Surfer Blood's more than Boston-sized feelings already among next year's most promising releases, I'm already starting to wax nostalgic for, like, post-punk. Or post-anything.

From the sound of it, Citay were never worried at all. Except possibly about their headwear. Led by Ezra Feinberg-- previously of Piano Magic-- Citay shredded happily, hippily, all over 2007's Little Kingdom, the San Francisco band's first album picked up by Dead Oceans (following a stint on Important). "Careful With That Hat", the rambling opening track from upcoming follow-up Dream Get Together, is no more apologetic about Allman Brothers-style dueling guitar heroics, sprightly acoustic strums, and summer-festival organ-- these guys could share a stage with similarly 70s-minded Swedish folk-rockers the Amazing. "It's an homage, not a mockery, I swear," asserts a boy-girl-girl vocal, the only thing tentative here. As synths and all kinds of percussion pile up on the closing jam, it's clear Citay are of more than a few minds, too-- I count seven band members in the press release-- but also, instruments. Which they can play, too, almost as good as Dickey Betts, whose musical rep should need no rehabilitating. Peach.

MP3:> Citay: "Careful With That Hat"

[from Dream Get Together; out 01/26/09 on Dead Oceans]

— Marc Hogan, December 1, 2009
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